This “gem of a novel . . . gives us a glimpse not only into the Chinese opera world but deep into a woman’s heart” (Lisa See, author of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane).
Twenty years ago, in a fit of diva jealousy, Xiao Yanqiu, star of The Moon Opera, violently assaulted her understudy. Spurned by the troupe, she turned to teaching.
Now, a rich cigarette-factory boss has offered to underwrite a restaging of the cursed opera—but only on the condition that Xiao Yanqiu return to the role of Chang’e. So she does, this time believing she has fully become the immortal moon goddess . . .
Set against the drama, intrigue, jealousy, retribution, and redemption of backstage Peking opera, this “tiny, perfect novel [with] distant echoes of All About Eve” is a stunning portrait of women in a world that simultaneously reveres and restricts them (The Times, London).
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FOR QIAO BINGZHANG the dinner party was like a blind date, and it was half over before he learned that the man sitting across from him ran a cigarette factory. Qiao was an arrogant man and the factory boss was even more so, which is why their eyes hadn't really met. One of the guests asked "Troupe Leader Qiao" if he'd been on the stage in recent years. Qiao shook his head; now the other guests realized that he was none other than Qiao Bingzhang, the celebrated Laosheng of the Peking Opera, who had been wildly popular in the early eighties, his voice heard on transistor radios day and night.
They raised their glasses in a toast.
"Actors these days," a guest quipped, "find their looks are a faster road to fame than their names, and their names will get them there quicker than their voices. Apparently, Troupe Leader Qiao was born at the wrong time!"
Bingzhang laughed agreeably.
"Isn't there someone called Xiao Yanqiu in your troupe?" the large, heavyset man across from him asked. Then, on the off chance that Qiao Bingzhang didn't know who this was, he added, "The one who played the lead role in the 1979 performance of Chang'e Flies to the Moon — The Moon Opera."
Qiao Bingzhang set down his glass, shut his eyes, and then opened them slowly. "Yes, there is," he said.
Putting aside his arrogance, the factory boss talked the guest next to Bingzhang into switching seats with him, then laid his right hand on Bingzhang's shoulder. "It's been nearly twenty years. Why haven't we heard anything from her since then?"
"Opera has fallen on hard times in recent years," Bingzhang explained primly. "Xiao Yanqiu now spends most of her time teaching."
"Hard times?" The factory boss stiffened. "By that I take it you mean money." Thrusting his prominent chin in Bingzhang's direction, he said, "Let her sing."
Puzzled by this comment, Bingzhang tentatively sounded the man out: "Does that mean you're offering to pay for a performance?"
The factory boss's arrogance resurfaced. "Let her sing," he repeated in the voice and countenance of a great man.
Qiao Bingzhang asked the waitress for a cup of baijiu. He rose from the table. "You aren't trying to be funny, are you?"
"The one thing we have at our factory is a bit of money," the man said, still arrogantly, but with the serious tone of someone making a formal report. "Don't presume that all we know how to do is fill our coffers and endanger the people's health. We also strive to promote a climate of culture."
The man remained seated, while Qiao Bingzhang stood, bent slightly at the waist. They clinked glasses, then Bingzhang tipped his head back and emptied the contents of his glass. On occasions when he was excited, as he was now, he tended to blur the line between honesty and flattery. "Today I am in the company of a bodhisattva," he said, "a true bodhisattva."
The Moon Opera, long a painful memory for the troupe, had been commissioned in 1958 as a political assignment. The troupe had planned to perform it in Beijing a year later as part of the festivities marking the Republic's tenth anniversary. But before the first performance could be staged, a certain general was unhappy with what he saw at rehearsal. "Our lands are lovely beyond description," he had said. "Why would any of our young maidens want to flee to the moon?" It was a simple comment but one that raised goose bumps on the troupe leader's flesh. The Moon Opera closed before it had opened.
Xiao Yanqiu's voice, it's fair to say, made The Moon Opera a hit, but one could also say that Xiao Yanqiu's star rose thanks to The Moon Opera. The opera's good fortunes ignited those of the performer, and the performer's fortunes sparked those of the opera, as is so often the case. But that was in 1979, when Xiao Yanqiu was nineteen. People pegged her as an emerging star, even at nineteen a natural for the role of a heartbroken woman. Everything about her — her eyes, her interpretation, her enunciation, and the way she tossed the water sleeves of her costume — was imbued with an inbred aura of tragedy: sad, melancholy, and fanciful. At the age of fifteen she had appeared on the stage as Li Tiemei in the revolutionary model opera The Red Lantern. Holding her lantern high as she stood beside Granny Li, she had evoked no sense of incorruptibility, no thundering spirit of "never leave the battlefield until all the jackals are dead!" Instead, like autumn winds and rain, she'd left her audience with feelings of intense melancholy, so angering the old troupe leader that he shouted at the director, "Where did you get that little seductress?"
It was in 1979 that The Moon Opera had a second chance; this time it was staged. During the dress rehearsal, everyone fell silent the moment Xiao Yanqiu began to sing. And as he watched her up on the stage, the old troupe leader, who had only recently taken up his post again, muttered, "That girl knows the taste of bitter gall. She was born to wear water sleeves."
A one-time entertainer who had studied at an old opera school, the old troupe leader had been a man whose word carried considerable weight. And so nineteen-year-old Xiao Yanqiu was elevated to be principal portrayer of Chang'e. Her understudy was none other than the renowned portrayer of maiden roles, Li Xuefen. In a performance of the model opera Azalea Mountain years earlier, Li had excelled in the role of the heroine Ke Xiang, and had then enjoyed a spell of popularity. Now that she was relegated to the status of understudy, she displayed the magnanimity befitting a once-successful performer. At the cast meeting she rose to say, "For the future of the troupe, I shall be happy to devote myself to the training of others, to selflessly make my experience on the stage available to Comrade Xiao Yanqiu, and to pass the baton in a worthy manner." Her eyes brimming with tears, Xiao Yanqiu joined the others in a hearty round of applause. Yes, Xiao Yanqiu's voice made The Moon Opera a hit. The cast staged performances throughout the province, and they were the talk of the town wherever they went. Older aficionados reflected on past performances, while younger members of the audience marveled at the classical costumes. Provincial cultural circles welcomed this "second springtime," as they did "all other battlefronts." The Moon Opera was all the rage, which, naturally, flung the contemporary Chang'e, Xiao Yanqiu, into the public eye. A famous general from the military command, known for his talents as a calligrapher, praised her performance effusively. In the style of a great poem by Marshal Ye Jianying, he wrote: Fearlessly besiege a city wall / Courageously stage a difficult play / The drama troupe may find it a tough call /But hard work will see you through the day. That was followed by the inscription: "For Young Comrade Yanqiu, in mutual encouragement." He then invited her to his home and, after reminiscing about the good old days, presented her with the framed poem in his own calligraphy, which she could hang on a wall.
Who could have predicted that "Young Comrade Yanqiu" would one day wreck her own career? After the incident, an old-time entertainer was heard to say that they should never have staged The Moon Opera. Each person has her own destiny; so do operas. The Moon Opera was too feminine, contained far too much yin. If they insisted on staging it, they should have balanced the roles with a male singing character. And Houyi the Archer ought to have been played by a "Brass Hammer," a Hualian, not a Laosheng, even if that had meant getting one on loan from another troupe. If they'd done that, they could have avoided the troubles that ensued, and Xiao Yanqiu would not have done what she did.
IT WAS A WORLD of snow and ice on the day a special performance of The Moon Opera was staged for the Armored Division as an expression of gratitude to the troops. Li Xuefen asked to be given the role that day, a reasonable request, when you consider it. She was, after all, the designated understudy. Xiao Yanqiu, on the other hand, was decidedly unreasonable, and she hogged the role from the beginning, not once letting her understudy go on stage. The Chang'e role was a demanding one, with many arias, and Xiao Yanqiu was fond of saying: "I'm young," "For me it's not a problem," "The maiden role requires no acrobatics," and "I can manage easily." Truth is, most people had no doubt that, for all her purported reticence, Yanqiu had high ambitions and no intention of sharing the banquet with anyone. Clinging to a growing desire for fame and fortune, she was intent on placing herself ahead of Li Xuefen.
There was no way of reasoning with her, and when the leadership summoned her, her lovely face turned pork-liver purple. They relented by assigning Xuefen the job of "offering the youngster some guidance and advice," of "giving her a bit of support." But this time Li Xuefen would not budge. When she starred in Azalea Mountain, she said, they had often staged the opera at military barracks, and, earlier that afternoon, several of the soldiers had spotted her and called out "Ke Xiang." As the bedrock of her support, the soldiers would not let anyone else take the stage.
Li Xuefen won over the officers and men of the Armored Division, who saw in her portrayal of Chang'e an echo of the commanding presence of Ke Xiang — PLA cap, straw sandals, and pistol in hand — even though on this night Ke Xiang was in traditional costume. Li Xuefen had a booming voice with a crisp, clear tone, one that bespoke passion. Her sonority had evolved and strengthened over a decade or more, until it was widely recognized and dubbed the "Li Xuefen school of operatic singing." On that basis, she had created a series of heroic women: audiences watched as women warriors fought to the death, they witnessed the valor of female soldiers, they were moved by the lofty sentiments of urban women in the countryside, and they marveled at the sight of female branch secretaries. The emphasis of Li's performance that night was on the resonant quality of her voice, and the soldiers rewarded her with applause that was both rhythmic and loud, reminiscent of the marching cadence of a military review. No one so much as noticed Xiao Yanqiu, who had appeared halfway through the opera, an army greatcoat draped over her shoulders as she stood aloof in the wings to watch Li Xuefen's performance. Disaster had already begun to settle around Xiao Yanqiu; it was descending on Li Xuefen too.
The Moon Opera was over. After five curtain calls, Li Xuefen went backstage, trying, but not quite succeeding, to mask her self-satisfaction. There she ran into Xiao Yanqiu; they faced one another, heated excitement rising from one, cold emanating from the other. When Xuefen saw the look on Yanqiu's face, she went up to greet her, taking both of Yanqiu's hands in hers. "Were you watching, Yanqiu?" she asked.
"Was it all right?" Xiao Yanqiu held her tongue.
Others had come up and encircled them.
Li Xuefen shrugged off her army greatcoat and said, "Yanqiu, there's something I've been meaning to talk to you about. See what you think of this, like this, if we sing the line this way, it's more moving, don't you think? Ah, like this." She curled her fingers, petal-like, arched her eyebrows, and began to sing. Now, entertainers all know that professional rivals are bitter foes, even if one is a master teaching an apprentice. "A teacher would rather teach voice than lyrics, and rather teach lyrics than mood." But not Li Xuefen. She had taught Xiao Yanqiu everything there was to know about the Li school of operatic singing.
Yanqiu stared at Xuefen and said nothing.
The others stood around, observing the troupe's two female leads, one high-minded and talented, the other humble and studious, and they sighed with a palpable sense of relief. But a troubling look clouded Xiao Yanqiu's face, one of disdain. Everyone knew how arrogant the girl was, but now not only did she not feel humble, she did not look it.
Li Xuefen was oblivious.
Following her demonstration, she again sought Xiao Yanqiu's opinion. "That way you see a laboring woman from the old society. Doing it this way is better, wouldn't you say?" Xiao Yanqiu just stared at Li Xuefen, an odd look on her face. "Not bad," she said with the hint of a smile before Xuefen could continue. "But you forgot two props today."
Li Xuefen clasped her hands to her chest, and from there to her head. "What did I forget?" she asked anxiously.
Xiao Yanqiu took her time to reply. "A pair of straw sandals and a pistol," she said at last.
At first everyone was lost, but they, as well as Li Xuefen, soon realized what was happening. This time the upstart had gone too far. Just because she saw the world immodestly was no reason to speak that way. Still smiling, she gazed at Xuefen, watching her passion slowly cool.
"What about you? What kind of Chang'e are you? A bad luck woman, a seductress, a nymphomaniac! Imprisoned on the moon and unable to sell her goods!" Xuefen rose up on her toes, the heat of passion returning.
Now it was Xiao Yanqiu's turn to cool off. A north wind blew from her nostrils, and snowflakes swirled in her eyes, as if she had been struck by something. A stagehand walked up with a mug of hot water for Li Xuefen to warm her hands. Xiao Yanqiu reached out, took the mug from him, and flung the water in Li Xuefen's face.
BACKSTAGE WAS suddenly a hornets' nest. Xiao Yanqiu stood watching with a dazed look as figures darted back and forth, her ears assailed by the chaotic clatter of footsteps. Feet pounded the floor, running from backstage to the hallway, and from there to somewhere outside, where footfalls were replaced by the starting of a car engine. Then she was alone, the abandoned hallway a road to the moon, it seemed. After standing there bewildered for a long moment, she walked down the lonelyhallway to her dressing room, where she stood in front of the mirror and, with a startled look, stared at her reflection. Only now did she comprehend what she had done. Gazing absently at her hands, she sat down on the dressing-room stool.
Just how hot the water had been no longer mattered. As always, the nature of the act determined the degree of its severity. Xiao Yanqiu's stalwart supporter, the old troupe leader, was so angry his head looked like it might explode. Wagging two fingers a scant few inches from Xiao Yanqiu's nose, he sputtered, "You, you, you, you you you you you, why you little!" Words failed him, and he was forced to revert to lines from the operatic repertoire: "You must not forsake your conscience. If fame and fortune cloud your heart, jealousy will bring you to grief."
"That's not what it was," Xiao Yanqiu said.
"Then what was it?"
"Not that," she said through her tears.
The old troupe leader pounded the table. "Then what was it?"
"I mean it. That's not what it was."
Xiao Yanqiu left the stage.
The principal portrayer of Chang'e was demoted to the position of a teacher in the drama academy; her understudy lay in a hospital ward. The Moon Opera closed for the second time. "Buds appear and die in a frost, plum blossoms fall before hailstones."
Fortune did not favor The Moon Opera.CHAPTER 2
WHO COULD HAVE predicted that The Moon Opera would find a patron, its own bodhisattva?
The costume money finally arrived.
Qiao Bingzhang had been weighted down with worries, waiting for days. Without the tobacco factory money, The Moon Opera would be nothing more than the moon in the water. Truth is, he had only been waiting eleven days, but to him it seemed like an eternity. As he was waiting, he discovered that while the amount of money was important, so too was how long it took to get there. These days that thing called money was getting stranger all the time.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Moon Opera"
Copyright © 2007 Bi Feiyu.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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